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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Abstract Painting: Concepts And Techniques by Vicky Perry (Watson-Guptill Publications) Until now, the techniques used to create great abstract paintings were surrounded by a veil of mystery. Abstract Painting: Concepts and Techniques lifts that veil to reveal the exact methods behind the masterworks. Now students and professional artists can stop guessing and start building on the techniques of the great abstract artists to create their own innovative new work. Two clear, comprehensible sections let artists focus quickly on their specific areas of interest. The first section, on Traditional Painterly Abstraction, using brush and easel, looks at pictorial space, brushwork, paint quality, and collage. The second section, on Post-Painterly Modern Abstraction, considers options ranging from the pour-and-spatter techniques of Jackson Pollock to the staining, scraping, and abrading of modern acrylic artists. Step-by-step recipes for key approaches show artists how to get the best aesthetic results, freeing them to move forward philosophically.

Excerpt: Ionce suggested that organizing a group exhibi- tion of abstract painting was like convoking a church of atheists. On what basis could they join together, since what they agree on consists mostly of what they reject? Likewise, one might have thought, a book on the techniques of abstract painting would be like a guide to ritual for free­thinkers. Isn't the whole point to do it differently?

After all, the modernist attitude to technique is supposed to be flexible and undogmatic. An artist—painter or otherwise—should find her own notion of art and in the process discover the technique by means of which it can be articulated. This is the meaning of the famous admission by Clement Greenberg that "the onlooker who says his child could paint a Newman may be right," to which he added the proviso that "Newman would have to be there to tell the child exactly what to do." The tech­nique was not the cause of the work; on the contrary, the work—meaning, essentially, an activity of the mind and eye—made the technique.

Modernism has meant, among other things, that no technique handed down by school or master should constrain the freedom of the artist's develop­ment. Today, art schools do not inculcate rules or methods but rather attitudes toward the exploration of artistic questions. In theory, they also provide opportunities to learn specific techniques for those students whose development demands them. But this teaching usually takes place in an ad hoc, clearly supplementary manner—and this part of artistic training seems to become more and more rudi­mentary as time goes on.

This leaves the contemporary artist in a quandary. However insouciant her way of working may appear, it must always be meaningful. Because technique can never be a given, it always communicates something. The meaning of Newman's work changed as deeply when he switched from oil paintto acrylic as Philip Guston's did when he changed from abstraction to representation. Technique is the primary vehicle for the art's content, above all when the art is abstract, though not only then. The very thing that is most crucial for the artist is the least talked about. Perhaps it's because of the idea that technique should not be learned. One artist's technique is irrelevant to another artist, it might be thought, to the extent that the content of their work is distinct, and positively dangerous if the content is similar. A shared technique would tend to efface their artistic identities.

Non-practitioner critics like myself, of course, have our own reasons for wanting to peek through the studio keyhole. And history proves our curiosity to be well founded. Understanding how Mondrian did it, how Pollock did it, becomes even more important to understanding their work as time goes on. The same will be true, I'm sure, of today's painters. But those painters themselves need hardly be so anxious on the subject of technique. Who can artists learn from if not each other? A schoolchild would hardly be interested in having Barnett Newman tell him how to paint, but a colleague would be very curious indeed—just one time, of course—and might even want to try it. There is still much to be learned by imitating. Part of what one learns is how imitation is always interpretation, therefore inevitably different from what is being imitated. Artists are always concerned to differen­tiate themselves from their peers, and above all from those with whom they have the most in common. But in order to do so, they need to understand their colleagues' work—and that means understanding it down to the level of the tactile, to know what it feels like to make a painting that way. Here, then, is the reason abstract painters will want to read about how other abstractionists make their paintings: in order to do it differently.

The Yin/Yang of Painting: A Contemporary Master Reveals the Secrets of Painting Found in Ancient Chinese Philosophy by Hongnian Zhang and Lois Woolley (Watson-Guptill) Offers a practical guide and simple, though time-honored, approach to the balance of compositional elements in painting. Recommended for beginners and painters who wish to evaluate their practice through a Chinese eye. Zhang paints while Woolley writes about the connections between the yin and yang.  Zhang’s technique is colorfully illustrated. Woolley explanations convey the frame of mind and assumptions behind his style. The details about using tone and color to convey mood and passion were especially inspired.

Through the harmonious balancing of opposites, the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin yang is beautifully applied to the art of painting in an illuminating, results-oriented instructional for artists of all levels. According to this time-honored system, successful art is based on balanced energies and the control of contrasting elements within a work. This remarkably simple approach is presented in two seamless parts. Part One examines the traditional elements of painting-from value (light/dark) and texture (thick/thin) to color (warm/cold) and brushwork (sharp/blurred)-as evolving from a true balance of opposites. Part Two's step-by-step demonstrations focus on major genres of painting-still life, landscape, and the figure-employing all the yin-yang principles for the completion of successful paintings.

About the Authors:
Hongnian Zhang is an award-winning artist from China. Since his relocation to the United States, his work has been acquired by private and corporate collections and shown at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York and at Harvard University. He teaches painting at the New York Academy of Art in New York City. Both he and his co-author Lois Woolley, a professional portrait painter, are on the faculty of the Woodstock School of Art in their hometown of Woodstock, New York, where they share their lives and a studio.

Watercolor Masterclass: A Complete Guide to Watercolor With Twelve Inspiring Projects by Bill Diggins, Carrie Hill, and Ian Sidaway (Watson-Guptill) is a useful book-kit that provides a beginner's introduction to the most fashionable of painting techniques. Makes an especially good gift because provides brush and paints for the trial projects. However one should also get some watercolor paper.

By far the most popular of all painting mediums, watercolor is demonstrated in the simplified lessons that make this book, and the supplies packaged with it, an ideal introduction to a versatile art form. All the components needed for a beginner to get started are included: two brushes, four watercolor pan paints, four tube paints, a mixing palette, and six sheets of high-quality watercolor paper. The instruction book contains appealing step-by-step projects that provide examples of skillful watercolor paintings, with many tips on how such results can be achieved. Composition, color theory, and creating light washes are among the basics covered. In addition to its suitability for complete beginners, this book and the fine materials accompanying it are also excellent tools for experienced artists who work in other mediums and want to familiarize themselves with the ways of watercolor.

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PICTURE FRAMING TECHNIQUES: A step-by-step visual directory of framing techniques, plus full assembly guidelines and comprehensive coverage of decorative effects by Robert Cunning ($17.95, paperback, 160 pages, full color illustrations each page, Running Press ISBN: 0762402571)

Demonstrates in full color, step-by-step photographs all stages of making and decorating frames and mounts. This useful and well designed book is an encyclodedic introduction to picture framing crafts. It offers comprehensive descriptions of equipment for both beginning and advanced techniques and explains a wide range of decorative effects, from wood and paint finishes to gilding. It gives advice on how to restore and repair frames and includes an inspiring creative gallery of finished frames by professional artists.

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PRINTMAKING TECHNIQUES: The step-by-step visual directory of printmaking techniques, plus practical projects and an inspirational gallery of finished prints by Judy Martin ($17.95, paperback, 160 pages, color illustrations throughout, Running Press, ISBN: 076240258X)

This introductory text demonstrates the full range of printmaking processes, from linocuts to lithography and shows how to choose and prepare the basic images. It progresses from simple to more advanced techniques and suggests how to organize studio space, at home or in a commercial studio. A good feature of this text is that it includes original photographs and clear, step-by-step instructions and a gallery of images created by renowned printmakers as examples.

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